Of all the lessons to emerge from dystopic science fiction, one of the more hopeful comes from the oft-adapted Michael Crtiched novel that attests, “Life finds a way.” As the past few months have proven, so does the University of Iowa’s Pentacrest Museums.
“We installed two new exhibits this year prior to COVID, but once our spaces closed to the public, we made quick work of getting creative with accessibility, focusing on virtual offerings,” Jessica Smith, the museums’ communications coordinator, told the Press-Citizen.
The Museum of Natural History and the Old Capitol Museum together constitute the University of Iowa Pentacrest Museums. Earlier this year, with the rise of COVID-19, the museums invested in bringing programming to the community.
A Dunkleosteus fish is seen inside a Devonian coral reef diorama in an exhibit in the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History, Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020, at Iowa Hall on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City, Iowa. (Photo: Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen)
The most visible of these efforts is the “Hard Won, Not Done: A Century’s Struggle,” exhibit — one of the two mentioned by Smith.
Open for a brief time before the pandemic, the exhibit is an exploration of the history of women’s rights before and after the 19th Amendment. It recently launched online as a free virtual tour available to view indefinitely at OldCap.uiowa.edu/hard-won-not-done-exhibit.
Similar to how Google Maps offers a 360-degree street view, the museums have used a camera to photograph a fully rotatable view of the exhibit.
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The format allows viewers to click around to view different points in the Old Capitol Museum and select different images and blocks of text to view up close. What was meant to be a temporary exhibit will now be viewable online indefinitely.
The same is being done later this month with “A River Flowed Through,” which celebrates and studies the UI Hydroscience & Engineering program, as well a the permanent Pentacrest Museum exhibits.
Despite having been closed to the general public for the past few months in light of the pandemic, the museum has continued to engage with the community.
Over the summer, the Museum of Natural History also gave artist Jonathan Sims the thumbs up on his mural idea for Elray’s Live & Dive. Sims, who’d worked with the museum before, created a mural of “Dunky,” the nickname for the museum’s representation of a 360 million-year-old dunkleosteus.
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Around the same time, the museum partnered with Stephanie Miracle in the UI Dance Department to convert what was meant to be a physical performance into a 25-minute audio experience.
A giant ground sloth Megalonyx jeffersonii nicknamed Rusty in an exhibit at the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History is seen, Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020, at Iowa Hall on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City, Iowa. (Photo: Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen)
“We were already working on a live performance with the idea of deconstructing an audio tour,” Miracle said of the later iteration of the project. “(Originally,) the audio was to highlight what you could see with your eye (in the live performance) … now, the purpose was to paint a picture that you could fill in with your imagination.”
More recently, the Museum of Natural History also partnered with Prairie Kitchen, a downtown Iowa City business that opened this past summer.
The kitchen store has added stuffed animals inspired by UI icon Rusty the Sloth (an ice age era sloth scientifically designated Megalonyx jeffersonii that would have been roamed Iowa over 9,000 years ago) to their inventory with a portion of the sales of these “Baby Rusty” toys returning to UI’s Museum of Natural History.
“Who knows when they’re going to be able to open again?” Prairie Kitchen co-owner Susan Felker said. “We’re just excited to support them.”
Though the UI Museum of Natural History’s general budget has not changed this year, Smith said, the funds from the dolls do fill in some of the revenue lost by the need to close the museum’s gift shop and cancel venue-renting and paid-programming.
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“The few things that do cost money (gift shop and weddings) directly support collections … they’re definitely missed,” Smith said. “It really adds up, but hasn’t deterred us from our biggest dedication: accessibility to our research collections and educational programming.”
There are more digital exhibitions to come, along with activities aimed at expanding programming for senior citizens, but Smith is also looking forward to a time when it’ll be safe again for visitors to experience the physical space museums have to offer.
“There is truly nothing that can compare with visiting a museum and having that full experience,” Smith said. “But we’re really pleased with our commitment to access and the quality of virtual educational experiences we’ve created.”
Isaac Hamlet covers arts, entertainment and culture at the Press-Citizen. Reach him at [email protected] or (319)-688-4247, follow him on Twitter @IsaacHamlet.
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